CHICAGO – Over the past several years, the University of Chicago tennis teams have strengthened their standing as elite NCAA Division III programs. The men are experiencing their most successful run ever, having reached the postseason three-straight times and the NCAA semifinals twice. The women have put together a decade of excellence with nine-straight NCAA berths and seven trips to the NCAA quarterfinals.
As a pair of elite recruit classes join the fold, UChicago tennis now looks to build up momentum to become national title contenders in 2017-18.
The five-member senior class has been the key to UChicago's rise on the national scene. The group is responsible for three of the five NCAA appearances in program history and a pair of top-four finishes.
As a top-10 ranked squad, the Maroons have posted a 55-18 record in dual matches in the past three seasons. Bobby Bethke, Nicolas Chua, Peter Leung, David Liu and Luke Tsai have anchored the lineup throughout their careers; now they're striving to make one last run at the biggest prize.
"It's hard to quantify just what this group of five seniors has meant to our program as a whole," said sixth-year head coach Jay Tee. "Obviously the accolades, awards and wins speak for themselves. But what sets this group apart in my mind is the mentality they brought to the team from day one. From their first day on campus, they pushed everyone to be better and helped to redefine what it meant to be a Maroon. They took a chance on UChicago and shared in our vision of what we wanted to become and then worked their tails off to help get us there. The best part is that they're not satisfied with what we've accomplished and know that there's still work left to do."
UChicago posted an 18-5 record last season, took third place in the University Athletic Association (UAA) and reached the NCAA Round of 16. Six Maroons received All-American status, including Chua (singles), Max Hawkins (doubles), Erik Kerrigan (singles/doubles), Ninan Kumar (doubles), Liu (singles) and Tyler Raclin (doubles). Kerrigan was also picked as the UAA Rookie of the Year.
The season ended on a high note during the NCAA singles and doubles brackets. Chua became the first UChicago men's tennis player to ever reach the NCAA singles semifinals, while the freshman duo of Kerrigan and Kumar replicated that historic feat in the doubles semifinals. Tee is hoping that the players can use those victories over elite opponents as a springboard into the upcoming season.
"If they take those results and are determined to build off of them, I think it will serve as a great example of what it means to stay hungry, continuing to work hard to improve and become a champion," said Tee. "The next step in the process for us is to secure those big wins in a team dual match when the pressure is at its peak."
The Maroons have boasted one of the deepest singles lineups in the nation for several years. But their improving prowess in doubles may be the determining factor that helps them advance deep into the tournament. UChicago improved their doubles winning percentage to .771 last season with quality play at all three spots – an increase of .136 over the previous year.
"With all of the top teams in Division III so stacked in singles, doubles will be even more of a priority for us this year," Tee said. "We lost an All-American doubles player in Max Hawkins, but I think we have several freshmen who have the ability to step right in and give us a few more options at each spot than we had last year. We just need to take care of the fundamentals of doubles and rely on those rather than our shot-making ability."
There will be additional competition for lineup spots with four new faces joining the fray. Justin Lee, Alejandro Rodriguez and Jeremy Yuan making up the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in Division III, according to TennisRecruiting.net. Abhin Sharma will join as a sophomore transfer from Georgia State University.
"Every year we go into the season saying our depth is one of our strengths and that's never been truer than this season," said Tee. "We want the players to understand that in this setting, ego is the enemy of improvement and that to obsess over the lineup is only going to hurt their growth as a player and a person. If we view each practice as an opportunity to make each other better by competing against other great players, then I think we can all share in each other's success regardless of what number we play."
UChicago women's tennis kept its postseason streak rolling and advanced deep once more in spring 2017. The Maroons rolled through their opening NCAA matches en route to the quarterfinals, where they took eventual national champion Williams College to the limit before falling 5-3.
The national quarterfinalists concluded the season with an 18-5 record and a runner-up finish in the UAA. Ariana Iranpour was an All-American in singles play while the quartet of Marjorie Antohi (singles), Rachel Kim (singles), Alyssa Rudin (singles/doubles) and Tiffany Chen (doubles) were All-UAA selections.
"I think the lesson we all took from last year was the importance of attitude, energy and grit," Tee said. "We had an amazing ability to pull out close wins because the women were so committed to each other and helping each other through tough times, and I expect that to continue this season. Our returners understand that they are now going to be relied on to provide leadership and I believe they are eager to embrace that new role. We're going to be an incredibly young team, but we're also going to be incredibly fun to watch compete. We'll undoubtedly hit some bumps in the road, but we have the right people on the team to help guide through those patches."
The 2017-18 squad will have a different look this time around. The eight-player roster features junior Adrienne Travis, four sophomores and three freshmen. Incoming players Daryn Ellison, Claire Handa and Catherine Xu will be counted on to have an immediate impact in the lineup. The trio was picked as the No. 3-ranked Division III recruiting class nationally by TennisRecruiting.net.
The smaller roster will provide challenges for Tee, but also opportunities to thrive.
"I believe a smaller roster will be beneficial to our team this year in that our personal relationships will be stronger and we will grow even closer as a team," he said. "With nearly as many freshmen as returners, it's going to be easier for our first-years to assimilate into the team as opposed to feeling like they're trying to break into a large group that has already established relationships and identities. I think there's also a sense among our players that almost every spot in the lineup is up for grabs and it's theirs to earn, which is going to be exciting to watch."
The current sophomore class earned valuable experience in their debut seasons. Estefania Navarro, Antohi and Rudin stepped right into the fray and recorded at least 20 singles wins apiece. Laura Gutierrez worked her way into the doubles starting lineup in the second half of the season as well. The group produced a combined 58 doubles wins.
Antohi was a breakout star for the Maroons and looks to seize the top position in singles and doubles this year. The UAA Rookie of the Year led the team in singles victories (25-4) while primarily playing at No. 2, while adding an 18-10 mark as part of the top doubles pairing.
"Marjorie's greatest attribute is undoubtedly her competitiveness and ability to perform under pressure – she plays big and hits hard no matter the score and never, ever gives in," said Tee. "In my eight years of coaching college tennis, she is the best pure competitor I've ever seen. She already views herself as one of the best players in the country and is eager to prove that she not only belongs in the NCAA Tournament, but also is a contender to win the title."
When looking at this year's Maroons, Tee views their relative youth as the biggest strength and weakness. With a long season that spans almost the full school year, the head coach is expecting the team to evolve at a rapid rate.
"We won't have a ton of experience to rely on; but what we lack in that area, we are going to make up for in our energy," he said. "As a coach, it's going to be so much fun to watch all of them grow and improve over the next few seasons as they gain confidence in themselves and each other. The team we are in October won't look anything like the team we will finish with in April or May because this group is hungry to make their own mark and to continue the legacy of UChicago Tennis."